Yantras are diagrams that are composed of geometrical patterns that are used to visualize mantras and are claimed to be encapsulations of a deity or power in tantric ritual (Sastri 628, Khanna 11, 21). Practitioners of yantra believe the diagrams create a religious energy field in which the sacred powers can be invoked (Khanna 30). They are typically drawn on paper, metal, or rock surfaces. Three-dimensional yantras also exist; they can be as small as an object that fits in your hand or may be as large as a building. Because of the complexity of composition, any rearrangement of the shapes or mantras used in the yantra creates a completely new yantra (Khanna 22-23, Buhnemann 30).
The word yantra stems from the word ‘yam,’ meaning to hold or control the energy of an object or element, which is often used in the building of something. The term has been extended into religious tradition as tools of ritual and meditation (Khanna 11, Buhnemann 28). Mantras and yantras are used together as tools in tantric ritual to achieve liberation (Khanna 37).
Today, yantra use is found in tantric practices but according to Khanna in Yantra: The Tantric Symbol of Cosmic Unity, yantra origin can be traced back to the Harappan culture about c. 3000 BCE. Seals have been found at Harappan sites that have yantra-like symbols engraved onto them. A thousand years later (c. 2000 BCE), Vedic altars have been found with yantra-like diagrams constructed on them. The yantra ritual wasn’t brought back into practice until tantric practices became popular around 700-1200 CE. The use of yantras is widespread throughout Hinduism but the tantric ritual power of a yantra is a guarded secret that is only orally passed down from guru to student (Khanna 10-11).
Tantra followers believe the symbols composing a yantra diagram hold little meaning by themselves, as the yantra must be understood in its entirety. Through ritual and meditation the cosmos, deity, and mantra are all inseparably joined to one in yantra (Khanna 21-22). Fusion of three principles: form, function, and power, is thought to compose a yantra. The shapes that often compose a yantra (triangle, square, circle, etc.) are the most basic forms that the universe deduced to. To understand the composition of the universe it is believed one must use a yantra to map together the basic shapes of the universe. The function principle is the process of interpreting the symbols as cosmic truths that metaphysically guide one to a spiritual realm of existence. Each symbol or shape in the yantra is used to achieve a psychological state needed to reach liberation. Our psychological states are a function of the symbols in yantras. The power principle is the true meaning of the yantra and can only be achieved by transcending form and function. It is the power principle, that tantric Hindus believe to be contained in a yantra, only emerges when it is no longer perceived as shapes and symbols (Khanna 11-12). Only transmitting the true meaning orally from guru to student it is protected from misuse.
A mantra must be said to understand the inner nature of a yantra. Mantras are believed to be the metaphysical forms of deities or cosmic power in the tantra tradition. It is thought that the vibrations of sound paired with the physical yantra that unites space, and the written and spoken word embodies this meaning. Script on paper has only limited meaning as does the vibration of sound but when you pair the two they contain a conceptual meaning that separately they don’t have (Khanna 34-37, Buhnemann 40). The Om mantra is regarded as a yantra of its own. When Om is said it begins with silence then manifests sound vibrations and ends with silence. Yantra practice starts with empty physical space then a physical form manifests and ends in transcendence past the physical to a true meaning. Om is thought to embody the perfect vibration and is associated with the center (bindu) of a yantra (Khanna 37).
When multiple deities are believed to be encapsulated in a yantra the deity associated with the bindu is thought to be the most important (Buhnemann 40). The bindu is often depicted as an infinite point (a dot) symbolizing the pure energy of creation and existence. The bindu is where atman (true self) and Brahman (reality) is found. A triangle is the primary sign that encloses space because no fewer lines can create a bounded area. An Inverted triangle represents the yoni or the sakti female principle. A triangle with an apex pointing upward represents the linga. A circle often represents the cyclic nature of life: creation, preservation, and destruction. The bindu is the innermost regression of the cycle and also the source of expansion. The square is the depiction of the manifest world that must be transcended to reach to true meaning of the yantra and life. (Khanna 32-33, Buhnemann 41, Sastri 628)
The bindu is sometimes called the seed of fertility when it is inside an inverted triangle and an inverted triangle represents the womb (yoni) in yantras that depict the union of male and female as it is in the Sri Yantra (Khanna 67,72). In tantra, Siva the ultimate male principle (purusa) is the principle of consciousness and Sakti the ultimate female principle (prakrti) is the opposite and is the principle of energy and action. Siva oversees action while Sakti is the matter and nature. They are inseparable as the union allows each to fully manifest (Sastri 630-631, Khanna 67).
Hindus revere the Sri Yantra as the greatest of all yantras (Khanna 70, Bunce 44). The most common interpretation of the Sri Yantra is of nine interconnected triangles, four represent Siva with the apex facing upward, five inverted triangles represent Sakti and there is a dot in the center (Sastri 632). From the center bindu to the outer square there are nine containments representing the three phases of the cosmos and time: creation, preservation, and dissolution. The outermost phase (square field, 16 pedal lotus, and 8 pedal lotus) represents creation. The middle phase (14 outer triangles, 10 triangles inside the 14, and another ten triangles inside the previous ten) represents preservation. The innermost phase (the bindu, the inner-most triangle, and the 8 triangles that surround it) represents destruction of the world. Within each phase includes a dynamic cycle of creation, preservation, and destruction/dissolution but the cosmic cycle is only complete with the assimilation of all three phases. (Sastri 632, Khanna 78, Bunce 44-50)
The Sri Yantra is also represented as a mythical mountain or pyramid. At the apex of the pyramid is the union of Siva and Sakti. As the pyramid unfolds purity decreases as differentiation occurs and more cosmic categories are created. When the base reaches its maximum size the process must reverse and the pyramid must regress back to the pure unity at the apex. (Sastri 628, Khanna 79)
This cycle is symbolically the same as the cycle of life. In tantric philosophy it is believed that before coming into existence we are pure consciousness, Atman. Unfortunately one mistakes the physical existence for reality and thinks it is Atman. This illusion of maya causes one to not see the inner wholeness. Through ritual and meditation maya can be overcome and Atman can be re-attained (Khanna 79-80). Like the journey from the base of the pyramid to the apex, Sri Yantra acts as a 9 – step map for the return to enlightenment. Each of the nine stages corresponds with one of the nine containments in the Sri Yantra. Starting from the outer square, one must work inwards conquering obstacles, each one harder than the next. The last stage arriving at the bindu is liberation and attainment of Atman (Khanna 109-118).
In the Tantra tradition, ritual is an outer form of spiritual discipline that gives away to inner form of contemplation needed to meditate. Yantra meditation is often combined with classical techniques of classical Yoga meditation by gaining perfect control of one’s mind to control all thought processes. A yantra provides a powerful tool to focus one’s consciousness. It is only after complete control over conscious thought that the yantra meditations lead on to symbolic revelation (Khanna 107).
References And Further Recommended Readings
Buhnemann, G. (2003) “Mandala, Yantra and Cakra: Some Observations”. Mandalas and Yantras in the Hindu traditions. Leiden: Brill, pp. 13-56.
Bunce, Fredrick W. (2001) The Yantras of deities and their numerological foundations: an iconographic consideration. New Delhi: D.K. Printworld.
Chari, V.K. (2002) “Representation in India’s Sacred Images: Objective vs. Metaphysical Reference”. Bulletin of the School of Oriental and African Studies, vol 65 London: Cambridge University Press, pp. 52-73. http://www.jstor.org/stable/4145901
Khanna, Madhu (1979) Yantra: The Tantric Symbol of Cosmic Unity. London: Thames and Hudson.
Sastri, Gaurinath (2002) “The Yantra of Sri-Chakra”. Rituals and Practices of
Tantra, vol. 3. New Delhi: Cosmo Publication, pp. 625-662.
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Article written by: Jarett Rude (April 2010) who is solely responsible for its content.